The Indy reported yesterday that Compass has organised a letter against the renewal of Trident. Signatories included a pretty eclectic mix of the great and good (Thom Yorke, Damian Albarn to Richard Rogers and Prunella Scales) and also, as it happens, me. In the past, this kind of letter would quickly have been dismissed (not least by me) as an idealistic, well-intentioned but ultimately hopeless gesture of the type which kept Labour out of power for years. Yet things are so different now and I think it’s time politicians responded to the way things are. Notably, whereas the backdrop to the Labour Party battles of the ’80s was the perceived Soviet threat (Labour was a long way from public opinion on the need for the nuke insurance policy), now it’s fear of international terrorism. Clearly, nukes aren’t much use in that context. So what about the so-called nuclear threat from ‘rogue states’. There are two problems with relying on the risk uncertainty presented by states like Iran and North Korea to justify replacing Trident.
First, most folk agree that it’s simply inconceivable (I don’t mean just ‘highly unlikely’) that the UK would destroy a developing country and despoil the environment for centuries. Second, for the ‘independent’ deterrent to make sense, we’d have to prepared to destroy a country in this way against the wishes of the United States. There comes a point in all areas of public policy that something is so outlandishly unlikely that you have to recognise it as such and switch efforts to other, greater risks, such as in this case international terrorism or global warming. The ‘insurance policy’ argument has, of itself, therefore come to look ridiculous and literally incredible.
I don’t doubt that it’ll take some years of multi-lateral bargaining to get new countries who aspire to nukes to do deals in return for economic and other benefits. But of course this can be done by extending the life of Trident until the middle of this century. Meanwhile, not renewing Trident may only save a couple of billions per year, but that’s still a big figure and it’s looking more and more like money down the toilet, with no return in the form of a reduction of international risk.
Contrary to what the Indy reports in the article above, the government has explicitly ruled the nuclear deterrent out from the terms of next year’s Strategic Defence Review (and so have the Tories). Yet how can it possibly make sense to leave our so-called primary strategic asset out of a strategic defence review? How about – because it wouldn’t pass muster and because the real reason for Trident is international prestige?
In this way, Trident is much like Afghanistan. In both areas, the UK’s policy is primarily motivated by a belief that it’s the best way to maintain global influence – obviously most particularly with the United States. Yet that’s a pipe dream. There is no special relationship with America at all – ask any American politician. Watch the US demand command of Allied Forces in Helmand, for example. And we’ve just been booted around the European stage by France and Germany. The truth is that if we want to look after our own interest in future we need to do so by fashioning new strong relationships with allies in Europe, and also farther afield with emerging giants like China and, yes, Russia. Of course the US is our great friend, but the values which underpin our foreign policy need to go beyond meek acceptance of the US interest.
So far, the government’s only comment in the nuke debate is to say that we’ll have 3 new nuclear subs instead of 4 (yet without, it’s said, reducing our permanent at-sea capacity). What? Did we just order too many, or what? How big an ‘oops’ would that have been? No, this is the sort of piecemeal policy you get when you don’t tackle an issue head on.
The question now has gone beyond; ‘do we need nukes?’, to; ‘how do we use the nuclear assets we have now, and the way we get rid of them, to help make the UK and the rest of the world safer? That really isn’t something which should be left out of a Strategic Defence Review, surely?